Five Novels That Take on Real-Life Historical Puzzles

Fiction is so tidy, with its beginnings, middles and ends. Real life often isn't, and history is rife with those tantalizing unknowns -- mysteries never solved, strange events never explained: Jack the Ripper, the vanishing of Amelia Earhart and the crew of the Marie Celeste, the fate of the settlers on Roanoke Island. Theories abound, naturally, with scores of reputable, and some just plain corny, folks stepping up over the years to offer their theories as to what really happened.

Novelists, too, have postulated solutions and, armed with their imaginations, have addressed those conundrums without worrying too much about historical accuracy.

Below is a list of five of my favorite novels that take on real-life historical puzzles.

1. The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexandre Dumas
There actually was a masked prisoner in both the Bastille and the Chateau d'If during the reign of Louis XIV, and speculation was rampant about who he (she?) was. Voltaire himself suggested that the prisoner was of royal lineage, though illegitimate, which became grist for court gossip. Perhaps that inspired Dumas to speculate that the prisoner was the king's identical twin, a theory he included in his novel The Vicomte de Bragelonne (The Man in the Iron Mask is the final section of that tale), one of the sequels to his wildly popular The Three Musketeers. Was he correct? Most likely not.

There is a shortlist of confirmed inmates who, most historians agree, could have been that celebrated prisoner.

2. Aiding and Abetting, by Muriel Spark
The renowned author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie casts a shrewd eye on the case of the fugitive Lord Lucan, an English aristocrat accused of beating his child's nanny to death and severely injuring his wife in 1974. He then disappeared, and his whereabouts are unknown (he was tried and convicted of murder in absentia, and declared legally dead in 1999).

Spark's "what if" tale is a dark comedy that revolves around a Paris psychiatrist who finds herself unexpectedly counseling two different men claiming to be the elusive Lord Lucan. As she wrestles with the dilemma of who (if either) is telling the truth, she soon realizes their intentions are not quite what they seem. Is there a murderer among them? I'll leave that for you to discover.

3. The Kitchen Boy, by Robert Alexander
The fate of the Russian Imperial Family and their grisly murder by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution has kept historians and novelists, not to mention Hollywood and conspiracy theorists, employed for at least a century. The discovery of a swampy grave near the town of Yekaterinburg, where the family was incarcerated during their final days, revealed the remains of two adults and three children, which later were proven to be those of the czar, his wife and three of their daughters. The oldest daughter, Maria, and the tsarevitch, Aleksei, were not accounted for, but the youngest daughter, Anastasia, was, putting to rest the romantic myth that she had survived. The Romanovs were reinterred in the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg in 1998, 80 years after their murder. So what did happen in 1918? Robert Alexander homed in on a figure whom records show to have been working in the House of Special Purpose, in which the family was held before their murder: the kitchen boy, who would likely have been privy to what took place. Roberts did exhaustive research (the novel boasts an index!) to pen this tale of a witness to history, with a shocking twist at the end.

4. The D. Case: Or the Truth About the Mystery of Edwin Drood, By Charles Dickens, Carlo Fruttero & Franco Lucentini
This book charmed me so long ago that I actually couldn't recall the title, just the plot. Thankfully, I remembered that the book's cover featured an illustration by Edward Gorey, which allowed me to track it down (a bit of sleuthing on my part). In Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood -- left unfinished at his death in 1870 -- Edwin Drood, an orphan betrothed to Miss Rosa Bud (herself an orphan), disappears not long after he and Rosa amicably part ways. Is Drood dead, or does some other surprise await?

Dickens hints that the culprit might be Drood's uncle, John Jasper, who despite his outward benevolence harbors some dark secrets, including opium addiction and, more disturbingly, a yearning for the young Rosa. The D.
Case revolves around a fanciful premise: a conclave in Rome of literature's most beloved and savvy detectives (including Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown, Lew Archer, Maigret and Phillip Marlowe, to name but a few) with the sole purpose of finishing Dickens's tale.

5. The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey
This is the novel that inspired me to compile my list in the first place. From the outset, I was thoroughly engrossed by the novel's style and premise. Alan Grant, a Scotland yard inspector, is wrestling with boredom while convalescing in hospital. A friend hands Grant a batch of portraits for him to occupy himself with, and he becomes captivated by an image of Richard III, the hunchbacked villain of Shakespeare's play. We all know of the English king's supposed treachery, murdering his young nephews in the Tower of London to secure the throne. But did Richard really do it? Grant, a student of human nature, can't quite believe the man staring back from the portrait could have committed such a monstrous deed, and he sets forth to prove it. Tey's compelling evidence was seized upon by the Richard III Society, which for years has labored to correct what they believe to be a travesty of history. Today, most scholars concur.

My list is woefully short, I'll admit, since there are so many terrific, riveting books out there that dare to take on history's unsolved enigmas.

Please, let us know what your favorites are!

-- Christopher Schoppa

By Christian Pelusi |  March 27, 2008; 7:09 AM ET Christopher Schoppa
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Not a favorite, but currently reading the Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl. Interesting take on Poe's death. While I know it's fiction, I want to read more about what really happened.

Posted by: md | March 27, 2008 8:41 AM

For 3, note the remains of Aleksei and sister (probably Maria) were found late last year:

Posted by: Anonymous | March 27, 2008 9:29 AM

James Ellroy takes on real-life puzzles in a number of his books, most notably The Black Dahlia. But in American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, he conflates law enforcement, the government and the Mafia into a big shadowy group that is behind most, if not all, of the big events of the 1960s.

Ellroy isn't for everyone -- even though I whip through his books, I always feel like I need a shower when I'm done. What you think depends on your tolerance for hard-boiled violence and 50s-era mysogyny. But despite myself, I do find his take on these events interesting.

Posted by: KLeewrite | March 27, 2008 10:20 AM

I liked Daughter of Time myself a lot too. Though I felt bad in the sense I didn't quite know the details about the murder. It's just a little outside of my area, medieval lit.

Posted by: barbara | March 27, 2008 8:04 PM

"Quest for a Maid" by Frances Hendry plays with the mystery of the little Maid of Norway who was supposed to have been queen of Scotland, but died at the age of 8.

Posted by: Smartylibrarian | March 28, 2008 12:45 PM

I loved The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl. It is such an excellent story, as well as a really has a good portrait of some classically US intellectuals, many of whom shaped American thought and politics--especially Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Lowell. It is a murder mystery-- the commission of the murders parallel parts of the Inferno. It is great, fun reading.

I also liked The Pale Blue Eye, by Louis Bayard. Another mystery, with Edgar Allan Poe as a cadet--although a very odd one-- at West Point, who is helping to solve a grisly murder.

Posted by: chocolatetiara | March 28, 2008 1:09 PM

The Amber Room by Steve Berry is a great historical fiction novel about the whereabouts of a Russian treasure lost during World War II.

Posted by: Brittany | March 28, 2008 3:55 PM

How about Neal Stephenson's sprawling (but awesomely so!) Baroque Cycle, which in part seems to aspire to write not so much an alternate history as a complementary history to that in the history books. It's filled with a slew of historical figures (including a prominent and recurring role by Isaac Newton).

I couldn't put the series down once I started it.


Posted by: C | April 2, 2008 2:48 PM

I recently finished The Terror by Dan Simmons. It's an interesting take on what happened to the members of the Franklin Expedition. As another person mentioned, The Dante Club is an amazing read.

Posted by: dcreader | April 3, 2008 10:33 AM

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